Dhaka Journal: Five Things to Do in the ‘Concealed’ City
By Tripti Lahiri
Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, may have been named after a local tree or a 16th-century temple. Or the name may come from the Bengali word that means “covered” or “hidden.”
That’s an apt name for a city whose charms, as is often the case with large South Asian cities, are not immediately visible to the naked eye. Not that there are hordes of visitors trying to uncover those charms, although Bangladesh is trying to woo more travelers.
One travel agent I met there this month described the typical traveler to the delta country like this: “People who have already visited 50-60 countries and are looking for something different, they choose Bangladesh.”
But if you do find yourself in the city, try and sample one or more of the following activities for a sense of the city’s history, geography and contemporary culture.
Tripti Lahiri/The Wall Street Journal
The Buriganga, or the Old Lady Ganga.
1. A 7.a.m boat ride on the Buriganga: Bangladesh is a watery country, traversed by some 700 rivers, including the Jamuna, the Padma (known in India as the Ganga) and the Megha. Dhaka’s river is the Buriganga, or the Old Lady Ganga, which was part of the Ganga at one time, but is now a separate river. All day long people cross the river by ferry, as paddle-steamers wait for customers and almost-submerged freight ships come to unload their cargo.
But you should try and get to the water’s edge in Old Dhaka near Sadar Ghat – from where large launches head to different parts of the country — within an hour after sunrise, and get a ride with one of the elderly boatmen already on the river. That’s when the sky is still streaked in gold and the water is just coming to life – possibly one of the more tranquil sights in this busy city. At that time, it’ll only be about a 15-minute car ride from downtown. And if you go later in the day, even in “wintry” November it can be rather hot.
For a foreigner, there isn’t a set rate for this. But since tourists are so few, the city doesn’t appear to have a culture of scamming visitors. Pay what the boatman asks or be as generous as you like.
Tripti Lahiri/The Wall Street Journal
Dhaka’s Armenian Church is among the better preserved buildings in Old Dhaka.
2. A 9 a.m. walk in Old Dhaka on Friday: There’s no focal point in Old Dhaka, unlike say Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid or Islamic Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque and university. Wander around by yourself and it will be hard to find anything particularly old – as opposed to just decrepit – in this part of the city. But if you go with architect Taimur Islam and his Urban Study Group, you’ll see some wonderful colonial mansions, some of them still occupied as residences, while others have become shops and, in one case, a university hostel. Mr. Islam, who is passionate about conserving this part of Dhaka, does take visitors to well-known spots like the 18th-century Armenian Church as well, but much of what he shows you will be impossible to see on your own.
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Mr. Islam leads the approximately four-hour walk starting at around 8 a.m. almost every Friday – when this part of the city shuts down, making the streets a little less crowded. Contact the Urban Study Group on Facebook for more information.
3. A visit to an American architect’s magnum opus: A large number of architects consider the Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban, or National Assembly, in Dhaka to be Louis I. Kahn’s best work. The Parliament complex is admired for the way it blends motifs from ruined monuments – a major source of inspiration for Kahn — and elements of Bangladesh’s own topography, as well as its remarkable use of natural light. Architect and author Robert McCarter, in a 2009 book on Kahn, called it “one of the twentieth century’s greatest architectural monuments.”
But you can judge for yourself. The Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban is open to the public from Sunday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. You’ll need to fill out a form, which you can download here, provide a copy of your passport and pay 600 taka ($7.40). Photography is allowed in the complex, but not inside the assembly building. On weekends – Fridays and Saturday – visitors can fish in the Parliament complex’s waters for a fee of 3,000 taka, according to an employee of the Parliament visitors section.
If you visit the Parliament in the morning, then you must have lunch at the nearby café of the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts at 275/F Dhanmondi, Road 16 (formerly Road 27), Dhaka 1209. The shadows cast by a trellis-like structure that project from the building’s roof in the little courtyard seem somehow reminiscent of the Parliament’s interior. They have lots of local dishes here, including prawn curry and labra, a mixed vegetable dish that can contain a variety of ingredients — in this case, it was made with green beans, potatoes and lentils.
4. Two hours at the Liberation War Museum: Bangladesh is probably one of the few nations whose citizens have experienced two independence struggles. First, there was the struggle for freedom from British colonial rule, which resulted in an independent India and the creation of East and West Pakistan in 1947. In 1971, after nine months of brutal war, East Pakistan ceased to exist and Bangladesh was born.
Although the war was over four decades ago, its presence is everywhere. It’s hard to open a paper, speak to a writer, or discuss politics without hearing the words “71,” “martyr” or “freedom fighter.” One of the many divisions in the country is between “freedom fighters” and “collaborators,” or those who supported staying with Pakistan at the time, and there hasn’t yet been a reconciliation process to put the ghosts of that war to rest.
The Liberation War Museum, which was set up by private individuals in an old home, is a fascinating if at times gruesome look at that struggle, with lots of press clippings and other memorabilia from that time. If you’re new to Bangladesh, this is an important starting point for understanding the national obsession. But be warned: One of the displays is a glass case of human bone remains. 5 Segun Bagicha, Dhaka – 1000. Open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Entrance fee: 5 taka (five cents).
5. Dinner and karaoke at Pyongyang: Although Bangladesh doesn’t have a large community of expats, South Korea’s business interests in the country — it’s the largest investor in special export zones — mean a growing number of South Koreans live there. Ask a Dhaka resident for a food recommendation and they’re just as likely to recommend a Korean restaurant as one serving Bangla food – in fact, more likely. Pyongyang is not among the best of them, in terms of food. In fact, it’s not even South Korean. But it’s still worth a visit.
Opened three years ago, it is part of a state-run chain of North Korean restaurants that have opened in parts of Asia with South Korean populations. Located in a home in the enclave of Banani, waitresses in baby pink hanbok – long-sleeved shiny gowns that slightly evoke Victorian nighties — serve diners. They also play the violin and croon Korean numbers, urging customers to sing along or select their own songs. Customers who don’t sing, even after the microphone has been thrust into their hands, get angry glances. Don’t eat the batter-fried fish, but do try the kimchi rice.
House # 57, Road # 27, Block K, Banani, Dhaka 1213
- Wall St Journal